Snakes have been villainized by Hollywood for decades. If a film portrays a snake character, chances are, that character is one of the bad ones. Like sharks, snakes have acquired quite a reputation for themselves: cold, solitary, killing machines.
But, while there are some snake species that you certainly shouldn’t mess with, snakes are very misunderstood creatures. Today, snakes make very popular pets. However, looking after one is not for the faint-hearted, since their needs are very different from the needs of a more “conventional” pet.
As a new snake owner or simply a curious soul you may be asking, do snakes get bored?
Snakes, like all vertebrates, are sentient beings. They are capable of feeling a variety of emotions, from excitement and fear to boredom and frustration. Without proper care, not only is your snake going to feel bored but the overall welfare of your snake may be at risk.
Although boredom in snakes is still a vastly unexplored topic in scientific literature, this article aims to explore the potential signs of boredom in snakes and how best to avoid them.
Do Captive Snakes Get Bored?
Yes and no.
A recent study reviewing the scientific literature on the evidence of reptile sentience suggests that snakes are capable of feeling a variety of states and emotions. These include anxiety, stress, excitement, fear, frustration and suffering.
Although boredom isn’t listed per se, it would seem incoherent to leave this emotion out. Without the correct stimulation and enrichment, it may seem plausible that your snake will suffer from boredom.
Studies have shown that snakes possess dopamine receptors. Dopamine is a chemical released by the brain that, in short, makes someone, or something, feel good. If a snake is not happy within its environment, dopamine levels fall, which may contribute to boredom.
Yes, a snake is in no way similar to a cat or a dog (so don’t bother trying to teach it tricks). However, correct stimuli in the correct enclosure will go a long way to prevent the possibility of boredom or any unwanted behavioral changes.
Ultimately, more research is needed in this area. Reptilian brains are different to those of mammalian evolution. But, if a snake can feel excitement and fear, why can’t they experience moments of boredom?
Can Wild Snakes Get Bored?
It is unlikely that wild snakes get bored.
On average, snakes have a life expectancy of around 20 years in the wild. It may seem like a long time, but in actuality, 20 years can pass in a blur. In that time, a snake must forage, mate, and find shelter, as well as remain undetected by potential predators. Enough to keep anyone busy for a lifetime.
But that’s not all.
Ecosystems, whether they are arid deserts or bustling jungles, are full of stimuli.
With a flick of their forked tongue, a snake can acquire a depth of sensory information from the surrounding environment.
Chemicals and pheromones in the air stick to the outstretched tongue of the snake. A highly specialized olfactory organ, the Jacobson’s organ, enables the snake to identify particular particles – much like how we humans use our nose to smell.
This essential organ may explain why certain carnivores do not get sick when eating raw meat.
With some much sensory information to be processed, as well as the need to stay alive and mate to pass on their genes to the next generation, it seems near impossible for wild snakes to get bored.
How Do I Know If My Snake Is Bored?
Humans are a species of pet lovers. Globally, there are thought to be over 1 billion pets in households across the world. Historically, cats and dogs made up the vast majority of pet ownership. Today, however, more exotic pets, such as snakes, are becoming increasingly common.
Only now are we starting to realize the intricacies of reptile ownership. In the past, perceptions of reptiles were that they are unintelligent and basic in care requirements. As such, welfare was severely affected.
Snakes, as well as other reptilian pets, aren’t like cats and dogs. They do not give away any obvious expressions as to how they feel. This, in part, is why many people believed that snakes were barely sentient and felt no emotion.
However, there are some behaviors that may hint at an unhappy, or bored, snake.
Like not eating, keep in mind that depending on the species, snakes should eat at least once a week, their appetite might diminish during the shedding period. Irregular bowel movement is another sign that something might be wrong, since a healthy snake, depending on the species, should poop every 2 – 5 days.
While aggression is not a completely unusual snake behavior depending on the context, it’s usually a sight of stress and it could also be linked to boredom. No tongue flicking is also a strange behavior to watch out for since snakes periodically flick their tongues in and out to gain sensory information about their environment.
Finally, being motionless can be another clue that your snake is bored, or feeling unwell. it is normal for snakes to remain still for periods of time, especially when digesting food, but lack of enclosure exploring and movement could be a sign of boredom.
These unusual snake behaviors I mention are just from my personal experience, plus we had an onsite vet at the rescue center. If in doubt, it is always recommended to seek professional help when it comes to the health of your snake – do not mistake boredom for an illness, or vice versa.
If your snake is displaying any of these behaviors, you may wish to take them to a vet specialist. However, these behaviors could be as simple as boredom and you may need to play around with the enclosure design and add additional stimuli.
Enrichment For Snakes
For animals in captivity, enrichment is essential. In short, enrichment improves and enhances the quality of life of animals. By introducing novel items, scents, or substrates into enclosures, natural behaviors can be stimulated.
Enrichment can promote physical activity, as well as mental exercises – both of which have been proven to keep animals stress-free and healthy.
Whilst working at the rescue center, I was responsible for the day-to-day enrichment of a range of animals – from mammals to reptiles.
At first, it took me a while, and plenty of research, to figure out what kind of enrichment works for reptiles. Turns out, there are some relatively simple ideas you can implement to give the best quality of life to reptiles such as snakes.
1. Mental Stimulation
Also referred to as behavioral or cognitive enrichment, mental stimulation is incredibly important to maintain a healthy pet snake. Without it, not only could your snake suffer boredom and reclusiveness, but also a suite of behavioral changes and illnesses.
To encourage species-typical behaviors, try changing feeding habits.
Instead of placing a food source directly in front of your snake, try prolonging the “hunt”. Wiggle prey in different locations around the enclosure, ensuring the prey scent is well spread out. Using their Jacobson’s organ, which we touched upon briefly earlier, they are able to mimic the behaviors used by their wild counterparts.
Increased foraging and mobility not only keeps mental stimulation high, but also reduces obesity – a big problem with captive reptiles.
Puzzle feeders are also a great way to encourage prolonged foraging. These are objects that hold food in different grooves and must be manipulated in different ways to provide access. Puzzle feeders not only make meals last longer, but also add that vital brain stimulation.
However, snakes have a tendency to swallow anything they perceive as edible – even if it’s not. To avoid blocked airways, make sure any puzzle used is too large to swallow or cannot be broken down into smaller pieces. If possible, use puzzle feeders away from loose substrate as, if ingested, could cause respiratory or intestinal problems.
Finally, an incredibly simple yet effective way to promote mental stimulation is to move around the items within the enclosure or add a new plant.
2. Environmental Enrichment
Environmental enrichment is the modification of the environment of captive animals to increase physical, and mental, well-being. This can be achieved by providing specific, and novel, stimuli.
What you choose to do really does depend on the species of snake you own.
For example, species such as corn snakes or ball pythons like to dig; either to escape potential predators or avoid scorching daytime temperatures.
To enrich the enclosure of a burrowing snake, consider adding a dig box filled with alternating substrates. This is your opportunity to play around and experiment with different sizes and textures of substrate – from wet soil to dried leaves.
However, do not use any material lying on the ground. Some items, especially certain plants, can be extremely toxic to snakes. Even though your snake won’t be consuming the plant matter directly, oils released from certain leaves, such as dumb cane, rhododendron, and delphiniums, are enough to cause harm.
The addition of novel substrates provides a wealth of additional sensory information, as well as tactile stimulation.
But what if you own an arboreal species?
Certain snake species, such as the green tree python or emerald tree boa, lead a life up in the trees. To keep things new and exciting, change the placement and distribution of branches within the enclosure. You can also try different types of foliage (remember to check toxicity first).
By encouraging your pet snakes to move around, the risks of boredom and stress-related illnesses are kept to a minimum, as well as building muscle mass.
If your snake is comfortable with you handling them, you can also create a snake jungle gym.
At the rescue center, we made our own using a mix of PVC tubing, branches, and netting, stuck onto a wooden board. As with different substrates, the use of different materials aids with novel tactile enrichment.
However, there are some risks to be mindful of here. If you use netting, make sure the gaps are big enough for your snake to comfortably get through. If not, you run the risk of entrapment and entanglement, which can cause serious damage to your snake.
If you are using nails to attach branches to the board, like we did, ensure each nail is properly placed and not jotting out.
Snakes, both wild and captive, have the capability of feeling a mix of emotions and states, including boredom.
Without proper care, snakes within a captive environment may display negative behavioral changes that could disrupt their health and well-being.
However, by providing your snake with novel feeding ideas, as well as changing around the décor of their enclosure, your snake should feel happy and content.
If your snake is displaying severe behavioral changes, always consult a medical professional.